Thoughts from Moldova: Foreign Policy and American Exceptionalism

I am currently in the Republic of Moldova speaking at a conference on the theme of the U.S. Presidential Election, and it’s interesting to reflect upon the U.S. political process from Eastern Europe in a place where democracy is new and struggling.  The Moldovan government today is a democracy born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union approximately twenty years ago, and it is a place where the communist party still has significant influence.

The U.S. has a significant presence here with a vibrant embassy community, USAID workers, Peace Corps volunteers, and many NGO’s working to support democracy and economic development.  What comes to mind as I look back to America is thinking about the presence of the U.S. throughout the world and the U.S. foreign policy more broadly.  In the final debate between President Obama and Governor Romney, there was a brief discussion of America’s role in the world and the distinctive view of each candidate came to light.

Political Scientist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote about American exceptionalism calling American “the first new nation,” one wholly independent and free.  This idea of America as exceptional has never been rooted in arrogance or the need to promote our particular culture or behaviors.  Exceptionalism is rooted in the belief that America is unique based on the ideals of liberty, freedom, and the nature of man.  Thus, America has much to offer the world and our foreign policy should reflect these ideals.  Yet, this exceptionalism seems to be lost on the current president.

Governor Romney proposed that America’s role in the world should reflect this idea of exceptionalism, and he criticized President Obama’s Middle East “apology tour” shortly after Obama took office.  While the president argued that he was not traveling around the world apologizing for U.S. foreign policy, the posture of his view of America’s role in the world is a distortion of the excpetionalism America offers.

In Moldova, it is very clear that America is exceptional.  Exceptional in offering the world, and Eastern Europe in particular, a model of freedom and what it means to live in a society where the relationship between the citizen and government is one where the citizen can participate without fear and one where the common man has a voice.  There is no fault in this exceptionalism…no reason for apologies…no reason to diminish America’s role in the world.  This exceptionalism leads to America’s vibrant role in the world today.  This role is powerful in promoting democracy in places where people are not free or where people still live under the cloud of government corruption.  In Eastern Europe America’s exceptionalism is essential for training both the citizens of this part of the world and their leaders in how to develop accountability for actions, transparency in governing, and freedom to voice dissent and new ideas.  This role is changing the face of a part of the world where corruption, bribery, and institutional breakdown is a constant struggle.

American foreign policy should continue to provide bold leadership in the world today.  This role is not intended to shift cultural values or change the nature of the informal arrangements among citizens of a particular country.  Yet, American exceptionalism is a powerful influence for freedom and liberty throughout the world, and this role of American foreign policy must continue for decades to come.

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